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First Nations entrepreneur Kelly Beaulieu hated seeing food go to waste on Prairie fields. So she invented a rapid-cook process that locks in nutrients and taste. But how to persuade food processors to try it?

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

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If it's one thing Kelly Beaulieu hates, it's seeing food go to waste.

So Ms. Beaulieu, who grew up as a member of the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba, started thinking about the best way to turn vegetables left behind on prairie fields into nutritious purees for use in soups, baby food, dips and desserts.

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Armed with a BSc in agriculture and certified as a professional agrologist, Ms. Beaulieu garnered support from the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship Fund, the First Peoples Economic Growth Fund and others to start Canadian Prairie Garden Purees Inc. of Portage la Prairie.

Her processing plant, which has been running for a year, uses a proprietary rapid steam-infusion process that she designed. It cooks vegetables in four to 20 seconds at ultra-high temperatures, which she says locks in nutrients, colour and taste. The purees, which contain no additives, are then packaged into easily transported pouches. They have a long shelf life.

She gives the example of cauliflower. Only the most perfectly shaped heads of a certain size make it to supermarket shelves. The yield that doesn't measure up is often sold for use in processed food or plowed under. The same goes for parsnips, squash, corn, broccoli, pumpkin, onions, sweet potatoes, beets and carrots, all of which Canadian Prairie Garden uses to make purees. (It also processes chickpeas, navy beans and Saskatoon berries that are not part of the so-called waste stream.)

Billions of dollars worth of food is wasted each year while some people on the planet go hungry, a situation begging for answers. "By 2050 there are going to be more than nine billion people on the planet," Ms. Beaulieu says. "We've got to think of solutions for food waste. And technologies like ours are going to be a solution."

The folks at the Banff Venture Forum, a national event that brings entrepreneurs together with venture capitalists, seem to think so, too, as Canadian Prairie Garden recently won second place in its sustainable technology category, generating a healthy amount of buzz and investor interest. The company already counts at least one multinational giant among its customers in the food service and processed food business. And Ms. Beaulieu sees huge potential for exports, especially to the Middle East, as well as ready markets for famine relief, disaster zones, mining and military operations.

The technology is a "game-changer," she says. But while this is the company's trump card, it also presents a challenge – how to persuade established players to change their game.

Click here to see pictures of Kelly Beaulieu's operation in Manitoba

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Many potential customers are used to buying this type of product frozen, Ms. Beaulieu explains. "We had a customer say, 'This stuff tastes too much like actual cauliflower.' They've been using frozen products that taste different and so they don't know how to blend it in. When you taste our carrot puree, it tastes just like fresh carrots."

The purees may cost a bit more on the front end, she adds, but companies could reap huge potential savings in refrigeration, transport and processing costs. "People have to recognize quality to pay for quality. We have to educate the customer."

The Challenge: How can Canadian Prairie Garden Purees persuade food companies to do things in a new way to improve quality and save money in the long run?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Len Kahn, owner and president of marketing communication company Kahntact, Guelph, Ont.

First, this is a great segment to participate in. Concern around food waste is growing exponentially, and the marketplace will be looking for innovative ideas and solutions in the coming years. But being a new entrant in an emerging market segment can be a lonely experience. Companies, like individuals, tend to be creatures of habit. Getting them to sit up, take notice and change their purchase behaviour can be a daunting task.

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It's critical to get several reference websites going right away. Identify and work with companies or individuals who are intrigued with the idea and are willing to take a chance on something new. Having tangible experience and early successes will make calling on the next wave of customers that much easier.

An ideal "early adopter" target is niche processors, especially those who have a track record of operating with a social conscience. They have the expertise to turn the purees into actual products, and may be willing to invest time, money and brainpower to partner and help bring them to market.

Another avenue to consider is high-end, innovative chefs and restaurateurs, who are always looking for premium ingredients to create unique dishes.

Once a few of these "disciples" are on board, public relations and social media will be cost-effective tools to help spread the word. The concept can be expected to have traction with foodies and environmentalists alike. And in your communications, remember to keep the quality and taste aspects of the purees in balance with the sustainability angle; both will be critical to your long-term success.

Michael Watt, former executive with a major U.S.-based food manufacturer, and CEO of Baby Gourmet Foods Inc., Calgary

I applaud Kelly for her innovative idea, but she does have a challenge in educating manufacturers. Most multinational manufacturers or co-manufacturers are bottom-line-driven, and their proven, often-expensive manufacturing equipment has not been built for flexibility. So, if a production line is geared for frozen input, for instance, formula and batch considerations are often tied directly to standardized ingredients. Any significant deviation from this will potentially cause too much variability in product quality, texture and how the machines run. More complexity increases costs and causes resistance to change.

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Here are a few suggestions:

  • Provide a service to manufacturers to test your products and determine how to best work within their manufacturing constraints. This includes a financial analysis on return-on-investment benefits.
  • Consider partnering with one of the larger equipment providers to gain their support for adjustments that might be required to their existing equipment.
  • Get exposure to a manufacturer’s innovation cycle early by sending samples and following up regularly to influence the pipeline as things develop.
  • Focus on key consumer trends; for instance, how your products can support organic nutrition.
  • Have a breadth of offerings, as most purchasers prefer a one-stop shop for vegetable purees.

Bryan Fedorak, founder and CEO of Bartesian, developer of a single-serve cocktail machine, Kitchener, Ont.

Canadian Prairie Garden Purees has a great vision and potential to make major waves in food supply, but there are key steps that need to come first. The most important is finding a way to solve problems for potential customers. What keeps them awake at night, costs them money, wastes their time? Ms. Beaulieu can find this out by talking to potential customers directly and really listening to them. The results may surprise. Then her company can tailor products to directly help the customer.

There are many potential markets for this product, but a startup needs to focus on just one to begin with. Who are the potential customers who have gotten the most excited and are willing to invest time with her company to help make this work? Concentrate on these first. The company can then match their acquisition strategies, branding/messaging, and revenue model in support of this target market. Once product-market fit is achieved, it can then expand into more markets.

Finally, there may still be issues with "anchoring." We have a similar problem, with everyone wanting to compare us to products they know, and this isn't always a good comparison. Canadian Prairie Garden is now associated with frozen or processed foods. Setting a new anchor is easier said than done, but would it be possible to change the conversation to compare these products with something that has a different connotation?

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

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Start small

Look for niche processors that have a track record of operating with a social conscience.

Help a manufacturer test your product

Prepare a financial analysis on return-on-investment benefits of using your product.

Listen to potential customers

What keeps them awake at night, costs them money, wastes their time?

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